Even though he has been retired for several years, St. Clair area resident Frank Stokes remains as busy as a bee these days.
And among the things that keep the 74-year-old Monsanto retiree occupied are the thousands of bees he keeps.
Stokes, who has lived south of St. Clair near the Little Indian Creek State Forest with his wife, Teg, for about 30 years, still has his hands in a lot of pots, including the honey business. He calls beekeeping a hobby and said he needs to spend more time with it to become better at it.
However, his 200,000 or so bees did produce about 150 pounds of honey last year.
“It’s fun and it gives me something to do outdoors,” Stokes said. “I get excited about doing it every spring. That’s when the bees start to get busy.”
Basically, Stokes said his “job” is to watch his four hives and take care of the 50,000 or so bees that make up each one.
“You monitor them, feed them, take care of them,” he said. “It takes some work. Of course, it takes a lot of work on the part of the bees. My job is to keep them healthy.”
Stokes said he first got started in beekeeping in the early 1990s because “I was looking for something interesting to do.”
“I saw a course about beekeeping somewhere here in Franklin County,” he said. “I was involved with a chicken-raising project at the time with my daughter. When I figured out that was not going to be a success, I decided to do something else.
That “something else” became bees.
“It’s fascinating how these tiny insects organize themselves and their hive homes,” he said. “Just how bees in a single hive figure out what to do next and what triggers them to do it as the seasons change is still a mystery to me.
“It’s a fun hobby.”
Of course, Stokes said there are many ways to get assistance, including a couple of area organizations. He belongs to the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association and the Missouri Valley Beekeepers Association.
“I just keep learning,” he said. “You just have to. As a hobbyist, you have to stay on top of what to do.”
The beekeeping premise isn’t difficult, Stokes said.
“You get a hive for the bees to live in, and then you get the bees,” he said. “Then, you feed them, take care of them and rip off the honey they don’t need.”
Of course, that’s all easier said than done, he said.
“But, the concept is pretty simple,” he said.
He said most hives today are wooden or plastic boxes that contain frames that slide into them. The bees work on the frames.
There is one queen bee per hive, Stokes said, adding that he purchased new queens this spring at $25 each.
He said beekeeping really isn’t a natural thing.
“You put bees in boxes that you control,” he said. “You feed them. You’re doing unnatural things to them in order to get them to make honey. You manipulate their colony to suit yourself.”
Bees swarm when they want to move on and start another home. Stokes said when that happens, usually about half of a colony gets up and leaves.
“Sometimes it just gets too crowded,” he said. “They just want to find another house with more room.
“So, you want to try to prevent them from swarming.”
Stokes said honeybees transform nectar into honey by a process of regurgitation and evaporation. They store it as a primary food source in wax honeycombs inside the beehive.
Different honeybees have different jobs.
Some of these bees are “forager” bees, which collect nectar from flowering plants. The foragers drink the nectar, and store it in their crop, which is also called the honey stomach. The crop is used solely for storage, and the bee does not digest the nectar at all.
The forager bee then takes the nectar back to the hive, regurgitating the nectar directly into the crop of a “processor” bee at or near the entrance to the hive.
While the forager heads back to the flowers for more nectar, the processor bee takes the nectar to the honeycomb, which tends to be near the top of the hive, and regurgitates it into a hexagonal wax cell.
The nectar now ripens.
The processor bees add an enzyme called “invertase” every time they regurgitate their nectar. The nectar consists largely of sucrose and water. The invertase breaks the sucrose down into two simpler sugars: glucose and fructose.
During the ripening process, the bees “dry out” the nectar. One of the ways they do this is by fanning their wings, which creates airflow around the honeycomb and helps water evaporate from the nectar.
After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed. Ripe honey is removed from the hive by a beekeeper.
“To produce a single jar of honey, foraging honey bees have to travel thousands of miles,” Stokes said.
However, a major problem has developed in recent decades that have beekeepers, including Stokes, quite concerned.
The Varroa mite is a tiny parasite that attacks the bees and can kill off an entire hive.
Of course, the problem expands past the honey business as bees are the main pollinator of many crops and plants.
“I’ve heard of commercial beekeepers losing one-quarter to one-third of their hives every year,” Stokes said. “That can get expensive.”
The Varroa mite can be traced in the United States to the 1980s.
The Varroa destructor can only reproduce in a honeybee colony. It attaches to the body of the bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph.
In this process, RNA viruses such as the deformed wing virus spread to bees. A significant mite infestation can lead to the death of a honeybee colony, usually in the late autumn through early spring.
“It can be a serious problem,” said Stokes, who added that he has not experienced the problem. “It deforms the bees so they can’t work.”
Online information states that the parasite has wiped out entire populations of Western honeybees over recent years.
It is believed that the mite may have come from Brazil.
In September 1987, colonies in some hives transported from Florida to Wisconsin experienced colony failure — the first recorded case of Varroa infestation in this country. A spot check around the nation that fall revealed the presence of Varroa mites already in a dozen states.
It has spread from there.
Online information states that attempts to check the spread in the United States came too little and too late.
Statistics show that bee colony management in the United States has declined since the 1980s when the mites were discovered.
Scientists continue to work on ways to prevent an attack.
“For the little hobbyist like me, it can be not that big of a deal,” Stokes said. “But, it is problem across the country.”
Stokes also mentioned the “mean” African bees that are making their way north from Central America.
They were first discovered in 1985 in California.
Reports now have the bees as close as Arkansas and Tennessee. They can travel as much as about one mile a day as they migrate north.
“They’re not here in Missouri yet as far as I know,” Stokes said. “I sure don’t think we want them here.”
As the Africanized honeybee migrates further north, colonies are interbreeding with European honeybees.
The problem lies in the fact that African honeybees abandon a hive and any food store to start over in a new location more readily than European honeybees. In more temperate climates it can leave the colony with insufficient stores to survive the winter.
Thus, information states that Africanized bees are expected to be a hazard as they continue to move north.
They are considered an invasive species in many regions.
The increased danger to humans from African bees is related to the fact that they are characterized by greater defensiveness in established hives than European honeybees.
Therefore, they are more likely to attack a perceived threat and, when they do so, attack relentlessly in larger numbers.
This aggressively protective behavior has led them to be labeled “killer bees.”
“I wouldn’t want to tangle with them,” Stokes said. “They’re mean, but they are great honey producers.”
Over the decades, several deaths in the Americas have been attributed to African bees even though the venom of an African bee is the same as that of a European honeybee.
However, since the former tends to sting in greater numbers, the number of deaths from them is greater.
Bees are not the only interests Stokes has these days. In fact, they’re far from it.
“Bees are just one of the things I do around the house,” he said.
Throughout much of his adult life, Stokes has focused much of his energy on three “E’s” — education, the environment and economic development.
“Most of the things I’m involved with now relate to those three things,” he said.
He is involved with the Missouri Venture Forum, Innovate St. Louis, the Royal Vagabond Foundation and the St. Louis Public Library Foundation.
Each has its own story of why Stokes became involved, but the reasons all come back to Stokes calls those “Big Three.”
The most interesting may be the Royal Vagabond Foundation.
The Royal Vagabonds social club had its beginning in the early 1930s when a group of professional young men “of color” formed a social club. Their intent was to provide a higher form of social activities that were generally unavailable to African-Americans because of the limiting social mores of the times.
“It was founded for the professional black crowd,” Stokes said. “They asked me to be on the foundation. I’m not in the club.”
In 2003, the club decided to organize a separate charitable entity, and the foundation was started. Stokes currently is the secretary.
The organization is based in St. Louis. Annually, the foundation raises funds for its philanthropic endeavors.
Two of the other organizations Stokes is involved with center on entrepreneurs in the St. Louis area. The Missouri Venture Forum is set up so these entrepreneurs can help each other, Stokes said. Innovate St. Louis guides entrepreneurs through new approaches in an effort to make them more successful.
The library foundation’s focus is to help raise private funds to renovate libraries in the St. Louis system.
Stokes said there are 16 branches in the system and all but two have been renovated during his tenure.
Stokes was born in Philadelphia in 1940. He said his family has lived in that area for a couple of centuries.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College and received a master’s degree from Stanford.
At both schools, economics, finance and business administration were his focus.
Shortly after he earned his master’s, Stokes joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Liberia. During his two years there, he worked on putting together a public administration program for the country.
Following that stint overseas, he held jobs in New Bedford, Mass., and New York City, keeping his hands in his “Big Three” in the process.
Then, we went to Washington, D.C., to work for the Small Business Administration and was part of a commission formed to find ways to cut government paperwork.
“I enjoyed that,” he said. “We tried to fix the system, and I think we made some headway.”
For the next two years, he did the same kind of job in Ottawa, Canada, for that country’s government.
“For a while there, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life,” Stokes said. “I really never felt like a had a career. I just moved from one thing I liked to another.”
Finally, in 1981, when he “was looking for a longer-term job,” St. Louis-based Monsanto came calling.
“That brought me to the Midwest,” Stokes said. “I started doing a mixed bag of things, including running a group of people that wrote speeches for the company and produced the annual and quarterly reports.”
That led to getting involved with issues management for the firm, which he said entailed exactly what it sounds like.
“We handled the issues that came up in the company,” he said.
He retired from Monsanto after 19 years.
The Stokeses bought their place in Franklin County in the late 1980s.
Originally a plot of 54 acres, they now own 170 acres of land.
“We always had wanted a place in the country,” Stokes said. “We love it here. We’ve never looked back.”
Stokes attributes a lot of his happiness to the local people he knows.
“There are wonderful folks around here,” he said. “Once you find good people and groups and activities you’re interested in, you want to stay.”
Frank and Teg married in 1972. Their daughter, Delta, was born when they lived in Washington, D.C.